Tag Archives: Lataster: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus

Reviews — past and next

I have compiled the ten posts reviewing Raphael Lataster’s Questioning the Historicity of Jesus into a single PDF file and made it available to anyone interested through Dropbox.

I am looking forward to reviewing next, engaging in similar depth, M. David Litwa’s How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths. 

There are several other works in my “to do” basket. One task at a time.

 

 

Review part 10: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster (Conclusion)

As I read each chapter or section of Raphael Lataster’s book, Questioning the Historicity of Jesus, I wrote about it here, but now that I have read the concluding pages I discover that Lataster anticipated some of the points I made along the way. Especially this one, the final footnote on the final page:

The poor criticisms offered indicate people that have already decided that mythicism must be wrong, simply because they find the conclusion distasteful, without knowing what the best arguments are, let alone how to argue against them.

(Lataster, p. 452)

There have been several responses to the work of Carrier and myself which cannot be dealt with in detail here; I shall point out their failings elsewhere. This includes the articles and blog posts by Christina Petterson, Daniel Gullotta, John Dickson, Michael Bird, James McGrath, Brenda Watson, and Simon Gathercole (and Robert Greg Cavin and Carlos A. Colombetti, who responded to Stephen Law’s agnosticism). None of them add anything substantial to the debate, mischaracterising our work and typically focussing on attacking the person instead of the argument. Additionally, every single one of them completely ignored our most salient points.

(Lataster, p. 463)

Responses by Daniel Gullotta and Simon Gathercole have been addressed in-depth on this blog. Lataster’s criticisms are entirely on target. A decade ago a colleague of Philip R. Davies (to whom Lataster’s book is dedicated) spelled out in detail the unscholarly tactics of “conservative scholarship” in addressing the so-called “minimalists” who dared question the historicity of the Davidic kingdom of Israel. Niels Peter Lemche’s description of those tactics applies just as much to the critics of those who question the historicity of Jesus:

Critical scholars should be critical enough to realize the tactics of the conservative scholars: never engage in a serious discussion with the minimalists [substitute mythicists]. Don’t read Davies, Thompson, and Lemche [substitute Doherty, Brodie, Carrier, Lataster]; read books [or articles] about them!

For a more detailed account of Lemche’s criticisms see The Tactics of Conservative Scholarship (according to J. Barr & N-P. Lemche).

As we have seen, Lataster mentioned in the opening of his book names of mainstream scholars who accept the legitimacy of doubting the historical existence of Jesus. More names are added in his final chapter.

Lataster’s concluding call for agnosticism concerning the historicity of Jesus contains all the punch of the preceding 440 pages. His argument has been three-fold:

  1. the case for historicity (part 1, chapters 1 to 3) demonstrated the frequently unscholarly and generally fallacious efforts of recent attempts by mainstream scholars to present an argument for the historical existence of Jesus, and how such efforts effectively (unintentionally) support the case for agnosticism;
  2. the case for agnosticism (part 2, chapters 4 to 6) demonstrated the hollowness of the foundations (both source foundations and the methods by which certain inferences are drawn from these sources) for any assertion that Jesus did exist
  3. the case for mythicism (part 3, chapters 7 to 9) demonstrated that one does not need a historical Jesus to explain the evidence we have for Christian origins and that Christianity began with a belief in a heavenly (not historical) Jesus is indeed plausible.

Lataster has made it abundantly clear where the sound scholarly approach lies:

But look at what Casey did. Look at what Ehrman and the others do. These prominent historicists strangely and illogically appeal to the majority, appeal to authority, appeal to possibility, and, worst of all, appeal to innumerable sources that don’t even exist, in order to prove something that is supposed to be very obvious, something that is allegedly borderline insane to deny. This must stop. Scholars cannot be allowed to continue building on previous scholarship in the field, when the foundations – such as the appeals to hypothetical sources – are highly conjectural to begin with. If we ahistoricists argued like they do, we would be overlooked (well, more than we already are), and rightly so. These historicists did not argue in a transparent probabilistic fashion; they merely declared that their hypothesis is true or almost certainly true, and that anybody who’s anybody agrees with them. Contrast that with the approaches of Carrier and myself. Who are the ones trying to posit a wealth of non-existing foundational sources, whilst disregarding the impact of numerous actually existing sources? And who are the ones simply applying and asking others to apply transparent probabilistic reasoning to the sources that we do actually have access to?

This all should make it easy to figure out which scholars have an agenda, and which scholars merely go where the evidence leads. I’ll leave it to you to decide if you prefer the arguments of the people that used evidence, and logic, and had no real desire to deny the existence of a Historical Jesus, or if you prefer the wild and unsubstantiated claims about near-infinite non-existing sources, and just so happen to arrive at conclusions that placate their ultimately Christian benefactors. I strongly encourage philosophers and historians, and even other scholars, from outside the field to continue to scrutinise the methods and conclusions of these Biblical specialists. Several educated outsiders – and even some insiders – so far have done so and discovered that the emperor has no clothes.

(Lataster, p. 450)

Exactly. As for mythicists being driven by some need to debunk the existence of Jesus, such an accusation is entirely without evidential support and actually flies in the face of the evidence.

Calculations

read more »

Review part 9: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster (Case for Mythicism – the Evidence)

The third part of Raphael Lataster’s Questioning the Historicity of Jesus is where he presents his case for mythicism, and since his case is essentially a review of Richard Carrier’s arguments in On the Historicity of Jesus, this post is a review of a review.

Lataster has is differences from Carrier and several times points to areas where he wished Carrier had approached a point differently and so forth, but in the end he concedes that all of his criticisms make no real difference to the core of Carrier’s argument:

It is surely an endorsement for Carrier’s book, that my most significant criticisms reveal an intent to raise mostly petty objections, which pose no problems whatever to his case.

(Lataster, p. 392)

Another use for Bayes – Q

One such disappointment Lataster expresses is Carrier’s failure to elaborate on the tendency of many historical Jesus scholars to rely upon “imaginary sources” such as Q. In turn, however, I would like to comment on what I think is to some extent an over-reach by Lataster with respect to “imaginary sources” at least with respect to the Q source — the hypothetical source of Jesus sayings that the authors of the gospels of Matthew and Luke are said to have shared. Quite some years ago now I was preparing to dismiss the notion of Q and look more favourably on arguments that the author of the third gospel instead knew and adapted sayings (and other) material from the first gospel, but in personal correspondence Earl Doherty convinced me that I had not investigated the arguments for the Q hypothesis diligently enough to justify setting it aside so easily. Doherty challenged me with detailed arguments I had not thought through carefully before and I soon saw that I needed to study the detailed works of John Kloppenborg and Burton Mack and others to know what it was I was “against”. It is a little unfair to dismiss Q as an “imaginary” source because it is in fact a serious hypothesis subject to various tests. What I think would be an interesting approach to the debate between the Q hypothesis and the Goodacre-Farrer hypothesis (that the author of Luke used both the Mark and Matthew has sources) would be a Bayesian analysis of the evidence for underlying each hypothesis and to see which one emerges the more probable.

But I am digressing. As both Lataster and Carrier would acknowledge, even if Q were a highly probable source for both the first and third gospels it would bring us no closer to a determination of whether Jesus originated as a historical or mythical person.

An important reminder – a fortiori

Lataster rightly emphasizes throughout his discussion of Carrier’s treatment of the various sources for Jesus that Carrier argues a fortiori, always preferencing the odds in favour of historicity wherever possible. Lataster further stresses that Carrier even counts the evidence of the Pauline epistles, the references to James the brother of the Lord, as favouring the hypothesis of historicity. Examples — of which critics of Carrier’s book should note, and which should lead readers of certain critical reviews of Carrier’s arguments to pause and reconsider the intellectual honesty of some of what they have read:

So again, though he thinks Paul’s failure to distinguish biological from fictive brothers of Jesus is evidence against historicity, he nevertheless still counts it as evidence for historicity, and thus against mythicism. . . . .

Despite thinking that the evidence from the Pauline and non-Pauline epistles is at least 16 times more likely on minimal mythicism, Carrier very charitably decides that the consequent probabilities should here favor historicity instead, effectively claiming that the Historical Jesus is 3 times more likely.209

209 Carrier (OHOJ), pp. 594–595.

(Lataster, pp. 426, 427)

On avoiding unhelpful responses

Back to “mostly petty objections”, I do find somewhat jarring certain terms like “mentally disabled” and “lying” (fortunately appearing only occasionally) when speaking of recipients and authors of visionary experiences. I would prefer consistent use of language that opened up the mental horizons of the ancients to moderns rather than introducing modern analyses that cloud a modern reader’s grasp of the historical culture. Another term, one taken over from Carrier, is the expression “cosmic sperm bank” in discussing the ancient beliefs in how God might preserve a Davidic line across and beyond human generations. Such anachronisms invite ridicule. Lataster even refers to the Zoroastrian belief that a certain lake contained the sperm of Zoroaster so that a virgin bathing in it would be impregnated and bear a messianic figure. The scholar of Second Temple Judaism owes it to readers to explain the thought-world of the ancients and avoid misleading anachronisms. Lataster attempts to smooth over the conceptual difficulties with read more »

Review part 8: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster (Case for Mythicism)

Until now I have been working from a digital version of Raphael Lataster’s Questioning the Historicity of Jesus: Why a Philosophical Analysis Elucidates the Historical Discourse, that was supplied to me by Brill for these review posts.  I have since been forwarded by Brill a physical copy of the book after I informed them that it might make exploring it for discussion a little easier. It does make a nice change to leaf through fresh clean book-odour pages and marking them with a light pencil. I am also reminded of the retail price with a physical copy of this volume: Brill advertises both the e-book and hardback at $US210. The Australian Amazon site equates that to $A294.97 + $15 postage. Australia’s Dymocks bookstore advertizes it at $A587.99 Those sorts of prices tell us that Brill clearly is looking at libraries (in particular academic libraries) as its primary market. (The publisher balances costs of publication against expected sales and such prices are not uncommon for scholarly books; so don’t assume the prices are a gold mine for the authors.) At this point it is appropriate to recall the emerging number of scholars (discussed in the opening post in this series) who are prepared to consider the Christ Myth theory as a reasonable hypothesis that deserves serious discussion if not outright acceptance.

So far we have surveyed Lataster’s Part 1, his analysis of the case for Jesus having been a historical figure (the first three chapters) and Part 2, the justification for being agnostic about the question of historicity (the next three chapters). We now come to the third and final part of the book, “The Case for Mythicism”.

Here Lataster hews closely to Richard Carrier’s exhaustive (ca. 600 pages) case for mythicism in On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt. His case therefore entails a justification of Carrier’s Bayesian approach to the question. (See part 4 of this series for an earlier discussion by Lataster in which he addressed some common misconceptions about this application of Bayes’ theorem.) I think Lataster has made a worthy contribution by abbreviating and simplifying Carrier’s arguments and overall thesis. The main reason I think so is the quite disjointed and misleading criticisms I have seen online (including in the scholarly Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus) of Carrier’s book. Too often criticisms have targeted specific discussions in On the Historicity of Jesus without giving readers any indication of the context and weight put on those points by Carrier himself. So Carrier lists forty-eight pieces (or “elements”) of background information that need to be considered against any detailed arguments for or against historicity, with each of them having different degrees of significance, and none being of itself decisive, yet some critics will take just one or two of these points of background discussion and give readers the impression that they are foundations of his entire argument, and so convey the notion that criticizing just those is enough to demolish the case for mythicism. To read Lataster’s discussion of Carrier’s book is to refresh one’s memory of exactly both the method and details of Carrier’s presentation — something several critics apparently failed to grasp. read more »

Review part 7: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster (The Problems of Paul – 2)

We now come to what I think is Raphael Lataster’s strongest argument yet for being agnostic about the historicity of Jesus. It’s the last part of chapter 6 addressing “problems of Paul”.

Lataster begins by pointing out the well-known divergences between the accounts of Paul and the gospels and what these divergences specifically suggest about the theologically fractious evolution of the Jesus narrative. The argument then moves to what Paul tells us of his relations with followers of Jesus before him, especially James, and the many serious questions his comments raise given the assumption that those followers knew or were even related to an impressive prophetic figure now believed to have ascended to heaven. And that brings the argument to that ever contentious passage in the mythicist-historicist debate, “James, the brother of the Lord”.

Again Lataster’s broader knowledge of religion studies (as distinct from the narrower speciality of New Testament) and the histories of newly developing religions enables him to inform readers of the interesting possibility that biological relationships were created to co-opt pre-existing religious ideas into the new faith. Not that Lataster relies upon mere possibilities. Mainstream biblical scholars — in particular two who are “historicists” — are identified as either disputing the authenticity of the “brother of the Lord” passage in Galatians or (again with Bart Ehrman) at least provide enough caveats to lead one to have doubts about its authenticity. I think Lataster is on more secure ground when he develops the in full the argument for this passage not being original to the epistle than he is when reminding readers (as he also does) of the various arguments that the phrase has a range of meanings, especially in religious contexts, and does not necessarily point to a biological relationship. Many conservative biblical scholars reflexively recoil from suggestions of interpolation but Lataster is correct to point out that this reflex is in the main a product of religious conservatism. When the broader context of the dates and conditions of our manuscripts are considered, along with what is well-known about literary reproductions (including forgeries and theologically driven “redactions”) of the day, then it is only sensible and fair to be open to reasonable arguments for interpolations.

Later we read of the dual standards of scholarship in Bart Ehrman’s works. Lataster reminds us how Ehrman’s efforts to argue against the mythicist case in Did Jesus Exist? were very often shots fired at straw men yet in his subsequent books, How Jesus Became God and Jesus Before the Gospels, Lataster shows that many of Ehrman’s arguments suddenly align with the arguments of the mythicists that he earlier regrettably misrepresented or failed to grasp, arguments that he even mocked when they were presented by mythicists!

At this point Lataster drives home the biases of too many biblical scholars by demonstrating how even reputable names among them publish citations that simply do not support their assertions at all. One has always to look up and check the sources cited because so often vague passages are taken and assumed to be saying something specific in support of conventional understandings, and those works are subsequently cited by other scholars as having long settled the matter. Scratch the surface, however, and one finds that such assertions and citations and recycled quoting are all based on vague or irrelevant sources. The specific case Lataster refers to is Dan G. McCartney’s assertion that one of the church fathers “simply accepts that James was Jesus’s younger half-brother”, yet the three sources cited do not even mention James; and then James McGrath is cited as confidently appealing to McCartney’s assertion as having established that point. Worse, a biblical scholar is quoted making assertions about the church father’s views that directly contradict the explicitly stated words of that church father in the same paragraph. Such is some of the worst of biblical scholarship engaged in arguments against mythicism that Lataster exposes.

Lataster’s case for interpolation of the “brother of the Lord” passage is strong, being based on the use of the relevant epistle by the church father Tertullian who was using it to attack a view of a heretic that Jesus was not truly human. Tertullian points out that the heretic had problems with other gospel passages asserting Jesus had brothers but fails to drive home to the Paul-loving heretic that Paul himself claimed to have met “the brother of the Lord” — even though he quotes verses either side of that passage.

The only slight lack in Lataster’s argument is when he raises the question of why an interpolator would not make the “brother of the Lord” passage even less potentially ambiguous than it is. He fails to consider a common source of interpolations, a marginal note made by one scribe that confuses a later scribe who incorporates that note into the main text. read more »

Review part 6: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster (The Problems of Paul – 1)

https://brill.com/abstract/title/54738

I had hoped to cover Raphael Lataster’s sixth chapter, The Problems of Paul, in a single post but real life circumstances have obliged me to spend smaller amounts of time per day here so I’ll break it up into several posts.

I found Lataster’s chapter on Paul to be one of the best sections of his book so far. Lataster avoids common traps too many mythicists fall into when addressing Paul while at the same time he makes sound use of serious critical evaluations and broader questions pertaining to our sources to make what I consider to be very solid arguments without letting their potential controversy deflect him from course.

Some radical scholars have questioned the existence of Paul but Lataster rightly sidesteps that question as a red-herring in the context of asking if Jesus was a historical figure. Whatever we do with “Paul” himself the epistles in his name still need to be addressed.

Physical or Spiritual?

The most fundamental question that is asked of Paul’s letters in historicist-mythicist debates is whether the letters present Jesus as a physical or exclusively spiritual being. Obviously, if our (possibly) earliest sources for Jesus consider him a spiritual entity then the historicity of a Jesus figure has to be questioned. On the other hand, even if we can establish that Paul definitely thought of Jesus as a flesh and blood human being on earth in a recent past then I don’t believe we can conclude that that of itself establishes Jesus as a historical figure. History is replete with stories and legends of people who are believed to have existed yet whom we know to be mythical. Nonetheless, it goes without saying that an earthly Jesus in Paul’s letters will open up the possibility of Jesus being historical more than the alternative.

What is most significant about the evidence in Paul’s writings, Lataster stresses, is its ambiguity, or at least its potential to be subject to alternative interpretations. That is all that is needed to legitimize the question of whether Jesus was historical or not.

Vridar posts addressing the “born of a woman” passage in Galatians: The “Born of a Woman” / Galatians 4:4 INDEX

In Paul’s letter to the Galatians we read that Jesus was “born of a woman” and that would seem to end the discussion as to whether Paul thought of Jesus as a literal human being — except that Lataster points readers to Bart Ehrman’s discussion of this passage in Orthodox Corruption of Scripture which notes

a) there is compelling evidence in the writings of the earliest church fathers that while surrounding passages in Galatians were well known the particular passage with “born of woman” is not in evidence at all, even though it would have served decisive blows in the theological arguments those fathers were attempting to make;

b) that the word translated “born” is not the usual word for “born” but another word that carries ambiguities about the actual process being described and which has significance for various theological debates in the second century.

Lataster further raises the possibility that the passage was originally meant to be understood allegorically but I find the arguments raised for that possibility seem to be slightly strained against the natural reading of the text. (I have the same difficulties with Richard Carrier’s case along the same lines in On the Historicity of Jesus.) The allegorical portion of the text is made explicit and it appears to me to be introduced to inject a certain meaning into “real events” in the preceding verses. But that’s all a minor detour.

On the same question as to whether Paul’s writings speak of a human or exclusively spiritual Jesus Lataster further addresses a more general point that I find to be otherwise largely overlooked in this debate: read more »

Review part 5: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster (Case for Agnosticism – 2, Sources)

I discuss here my reading of Chapter 5 of Raphael Lataster’s Questioning the Historicity of Jesus. Here he looks at the problematic nature of the gospels and extra-biblical sources for Jesus.

Lataster discusses how historical Jesus scholars attempt to get around the problem that there are no primary sources for a historical Jesus. This absence leads scholars to focus on

1) the character and limitations of presumed oral traditions that bridge the gap between the gospels and the historical Jesus;

2) memory theory, what we theorize and know about social and individual memories.

Both of these studies do indeed raise awareness of problems for a historian’s access to a historical Jesus and Lataster cites numerous scholars who have contributed to our awareness of these problems. I suggest, however, that much of the discussion is at best a footnote to a debate over whether there was a person of Jesus at the start of Christianity. After all, the problems relate to the reconstruction of such a Jesus. If Christianity had some other origin then memories or oral traditions cannot have any relation to “a historical Jesus”.

Josephus

For an annotated list and links to discussions of the Testimonium Flavianum on this blog see Jesus in Josephus: Testimonium Flavianum

The most famous extra-biblical reference to a historical Jesus is the Testimonium Flavianum of Josephus. Lataster’s discussion is a thorough coverage of the weaknesses of attempts to salvage even a smaller core of the surviving sentences, again citing a range of recent scholars who have expressed serious reservations about Josephus ever having said anything at all about our Jesus. I was pleased to see a detailed quotation from a publication by a distinguished professor in the field of linguistics, Paul Hopper. (Interested readers can see the quotation in an older post here.) As for the second passage in the Antiquities of Josephus, one which appears to be an after-thought reference to a Jesus related to a certain James, Lataster highlights Richard Carrier’s argument that the Jesus referred to is Jesus son of Damneus. (See David Fitzgerald Responds for details of the argument.) Carrier’s view makes some sense but I am not entirely sure it resolves all questions and for that reason I prefer Earl Doherty’s original discussion as the more satisfactory. But either way, there are significant problems with the view that Josephus identified James as “the brother of Jesus, the one called Christ”, both in syntax and context. It is important to address both Josephan passages but as Lataster notes,

it is important to realise that even if authentic, these verses do not necessarily confirm the existence of the Historical Jesus.

(Lataster, p. 200)

Josephus is writing decades after the supposed historical Jesus and adds nothing to what is known from other sources, the implication being that there is no reason to suspect that either passage had any source other than Christians, either as Josephus’s late first century source or as later copyists of his work.

Other sources

Lataster’s comprehensive discussions of other ancient sources mentioning or interpreted as alluding to either Jesus or Christ — Tacitus, Pliny, Thallus, Suetonius, Mara bar Serapion, and the Talmud — draw in both scholarly rebuttals and common answers that as far as I am aware have never been countered by anyone attempting to use them as evidence for a historical Jesus. A new point concerning Pliny’s letter about Christians to emperor Trajan is also covered: Enrico Tuccinardi has applied a stylometric analysis that strongly indicates the entire passage is a forgery.

Scholarly “confessions”

As for the canonical gospels, Lataster reminds us of the major obstacles to accepting them as sources for a historical Jesus. They are late documents, at least forty years after the narrated crucifixion, and they are accepted by critical biblical scholars as mythical or theological narratives of Christ, not a historical person. Whatever the form of Jesus behind them — historical or mythical — they are nonhistorical elaborations that have come to hide whatever that original concept was. Lataster buttresses his point with citations from critical biblical scholars. One such noteworthy name is that of the pioneer of the Jesus Seminar, Robert Funk:

As an historian, I do not know for certain that Jesus really existed, that he is anything more than the figment of some overactive imaginations… In my view, there is nothing about Jesus of Nazareth that we can know beyond any possible doubt. In the mortal life we have there are only prob abilities. And the Jesus that scholars have isolated in the ancient gospels, gospels that are bloated with the will to believe, may turn out to be only another image that merely reflects our deepest longings.

(Robert Walter Funk, “Bookshelf: The Resurrection of Jesus,” The Fourth R 8, no. 1 (1995): 9., in Lataster, p. 219)

Given the prevailing near consensus that the Gospel of Mark is the earliest gospel it is reasonable to consider the possibility that all subsequent references to and portrayals of a historical Jesus can go back to that gospel. Lataster cites Bart Ehrman to this effect:

If there had been one source of Christian antiquity that mentioned a historical Jesus (e.g., Mark) and everyone else was based on what that source had to say, then possibly you could argue that this person made Jesus up and everyone else simply took the ball and ran with it.

(Lataster, p. 220, citing Erhman from https://ehrmanblog.org/gospel-evidence-that-jesus-existed, accessed 05/04/2017.)

If it all begins with Mark . . . 

read more »

Review part 4: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster (Case for Agnosticism – I, Methods)

After reviewing the efforts of Bart Ehrman and Maurice Casey to present their respective cases for the historicity of Jesus we now come to chapter 4, Inadequate Methods. By way of summing up the previous discussion Raphael Lataster writes

The recent defences of Jesus’ historicity by Bart Ehrman and Maurice Casey lack lucid and competent methodologies, rely on highly questionable documents, and further make use of sources that no longer exist, if they ever did. They are polemical, occasionally vulgar, and often resorted to cavilling, focussing on tangential arguments of the more amateurish mythicists. They unquestionably failed, and this may have something to do with my introductory thoughts on just what sort of scholar should be investigating the issue; analytical philosophers seem much more suited to the task. (p. 129)

In response to the objection that “ahistoricists” or “mythicists” do not have an alternative explanation for Christian origins Lataster is blunt:

This is similar to the agnosticism over God’s existence. Those agnostics do not need to have evidence that God does not exist. They just need to be unconvinced by the lack of good evidence for God’s existence. In other words, my case for Historical Jesus agnosticism does not need to rely on good alternative hypotheses, though it certainly can be strengthened by them. (p. 129)

History is done differently when it comes to Jesus. And those doing the history on Jesus are, in the main, theologians or “biblical scholars” of some stripe who cannot deny that

. . . most people know of Jesus because of the historical reality of religious faith. (p. 131)

It’s like saying “Most people know about the massacres of Aboriginals in the Frontier Wars because of what they’d been told.” So how do we go about finding the fact of the matter?

I bypass here Lataster’s discussion of the respective appeals to “insider” and “outsider” sources (those of believers and those of outsiders), or the little controversy over the Jesus Project initiated by R. Joseph Hoffmann that he also addresses.

Lataster begins the core argument of this chapter with the theoretically correct point, “History Concerns What Probably Happened.” I find such arguments too theoretical. Indeed, one of the historians Lataster cites in this section expresses my view exactly:

That history as record is “relative,” may be admitted, in the sense that deriving as it does from the perception and testimony of men [sic – published 1946], it often borrows shape and color from the subjective medium through which it passes. Furthermore, the objective facts are perhaps never reproduced in their full range of authentic detail. But it is folly to leap thence to the conclusion that nothing can be absolutely known about the historical past. That Napoleon Bonaparte existed, that he fought Europe, was worsted at Waterloo, and died at St. Helena, are facts which we can be said to know absolutely. On the other hand, that his personality was such or such, that he was dominated by this passion or that, may very well be matters about which we have not, and probably cannot have knowledge that is final and irreversible. . . .

But “probability beyond reasonable doubt,” if we overlook the contradiction involved in this statement, is equivalent to certainty. What we hold “beyond reasonable doubt,” we hold with certainty. . . .

Although the historian can never attain the same certainty which is attained by the mathematician, the physicist, or the chemist, nevertheless, especially in the case of converging lines of evidence, he is able to reach such moral certainty as is the basis of nearly all our actions. (Freeman, Methods of History)

(Garraghan, pp. 78, 79)

If we cannot see evidence that persuades us “beyond reasonable doubt” that Jesus existed then we are compelled to maintain reasonable doubts and not deny them. Juries are required to find a defendant guilty “beyond reasonable doubt” and not be content with a “probably guilty” verdict.

As for the sources historians study, they fall into two types: primary and secondary. Primary sources are generally understood to be contemporary with the events being studied, secondary from a later time. Both types of source must be subject to the same scrutiny and Lataster cites Garraghan three times in the book on this point: read more »

Review part 3: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster (Addressing the Case FOR)

Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived. — Isaac Asimov

Properly read, the books arguing for the historicity of Jesus by Bart Ehrman and Maurice Casey present a strong case for being agnostic about the existence of Jesus. — paraphrasing Raphael Lataster

Part One of Questioning the Historicity of Jesus addresses the case for the historical existence of Jesus. The first difficulty here is finding the best and strongest scholarly arguments for Jesus’ historicity:

I have long searched for good cases for the Historical Jesus. I sought fairly recent, peer-reviewed academic books or articles, solely/primarily focussed on arguing for Jesus’ historicity, written by secular scholars in relevant fields. Not one source met these criteria. I would have loved the opportunity to critique books focused on this topic written by a James Crossley or an Aaron W. Hughes, and published with Oxford University Press, but such books – perhaps like Jesus – do not exist; so I have settled for two popular books written by Bart Ehrman and Maurice Casey. (Lataster, p. 29)

Those books are Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? (2012) and Maurice Casey’s Jesus: Evidence and Argument Or Mythicist Myths? (2014). Long time readers of Vridar will be aware of many posts covering in detail both of those works. Lataster’s criticisms overlap with much that has been posted here and by others, such as Richard Carrier. Even some of the scholarly quotations I posted here alerting readers to professional disagreements with the methods of Ehrman and Casey are also found in Lataster’s book. The arguments are so flawed that it hardly seems worth the trouble addressing them again, but I’ll try to outline the main points Lataster focuses on.

The sad part is that Ehrman has such a high reputation for critical acumen.

I respect the man, and I respect the rest of his work. On this topic, however, his work fails to impress . . . (p. 31)

Most of us know the failings: well-poisoning, false dichotomies, speculations on the motives of unknown authors, inconsistency in relying upon hypothetical sources for his own arguments but condemning appeals to hypothetical sources for opposing arguments, insisting that hypothetical sources included information upon which his argument depends, reliance upon speculation, circular reasoning, fundamental errors of logic, selective naive readings of the sources, the possible to probable fallacy, misrepresentations of the Judaism of the Second Temple era and unjustified generalizations about religious groups. Lataster dissects each of the above failings in Did Jesus Exist? but interestingly goes further and contrasts Ehrman’s failings there with his books written before and after that one:

Before and after writing that book, Ehrman was and is capable of proper critical research on the biblical texts. But for some reason, during the writing of Did Jesus Exist?, Ehrman’s standards dropped remarkably, only for the ‘old Ehrman’ to return soon after, as if he suffered from a fugue state. I suspect that Ehrman consciously or unconsciously realised that the case for Jesus would be very poor indeed if he consistently applied his critical approach and all of his vast knowledge to this question, leading to this strange Jekyll and Hyde situation. (p. 71)

Other scholars may have stressed other “proof points” for Jesus’s historicity (e.g. the “core” of a Josephan reference to Jesus) but Lataster shows how Ehrman effectively demonstrates the inadequacy of such material as clear evidence for Jesus.

It is perhaps somewhat ironic that Ehrman’s critical awareness of the limitations of the sources that we do have (the gospels, Josephus, Pliny the Younger, Tacitus, Suetonius) leads him to explain why in none of those can we find secure grounds for believing Jesus to have had a historical existence, and that having dispensed with those sources he falls back on hypothetical sources behind the gospels. read more »

Review part 2: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster – Some Definitions

Definitions, a necessary complement to the previous post and clarification for future posts. . . .

Raphael Lataster asserts that he is “not a mythicist per se”, with the term “mythicist” meaning, in this context, “the view that Jesus did not exist.”  He explains,

I do not assert that Jesus did not exist. I am a Historical Jesus agnostic. That is, I am unconvinced by the case for the Historical Jesus, and find several reasons to be doubtful. (pp. 2 f)

Lataster compares the term “mythicist” with “strong atheist” and “hard naturalist” and the term “historicist” with “theist”. The “historical Jesus agnostic” is compared with the “God agnostic”.

I understand the comparisons but feel they do not sit comfortably with those mythicists who have continued to hold fast to their Christianity.

Lastaster proposes a third term, “ahistoricist“,

to encompass both the ardent ‘mythicists’ and the less certain ‘agnostics’. This avoids the false dichotomy, which I think historicists (much like theists) have been taking advantage of. They often frame the debate as only being between the right and the wrong, the reasonable and righteous historicists versus the silly mythicists, ironically appearing as unnuanced and dogmatic fundamentalists in the process. With my proposed terminology, it shall become much more transparent that there are many more scholars that question Jesus’ historicity than is typically thought; that this is not such a silly idea. (p. 3)

I can say that I find the evidence for a historical Jesus to be inadequate and conclude that there is no need to postulate a historical Jesus to explain the letters and gospels and origins of Christianity. In that sense I could call myself a mythicist, but my position would be tentative. I would remain open to new evidence and insights emerging to change my mind. That sounds the simplest and most “scholarly” approach to me, but I have to admit that terms have long been charged with prejudicial associations and for many people the term “mythicist” implies an unnecessary dogmatism. Or would Lataster’s definition make me an “agnostic” — one who does not believe in the historicity of Jesus until further evidence or insights are presented? So I can understand Lataster’s point. Except that scholars like Thomas Brodie — who are Christians who believe Jesus was not a literal historical person — would surely prefer a comparison that did not carry associations with atheism. I suspect liberal Christians who are atheists yet believe in a historical Jesus likewise would not fit comfortably into the comparison. The world is a complex place and the making of definitions is often hard.

Raphael Lataster introduces yet another term, the Celestial Jesus. This is the Jesus of Paul, Lataster explains (p. 13). It appears to me that Lataster is following Richard Carrier at this point. Carrier’s definition of a “minimal Jesus myth” consists of the following five points:

  1. At the origin of Christianity, Jesus Christ was thought to be a celestial deity much like any other.

  2. Like many other celestial deities, this Jesus ‘communicated’ with his subjects only through dreams, visions and other forms of divine inspiration (such as prophecy, past and present).

  3. Like some other celestial deities, this Jesus was originally believed to have endured an ordeal of incarnation, death, burial and resurrection in a supernatural realm.

  4. As for many other celestial deities, an allegorical story of this same Jesus was then composed and told within the sacred community, which placed him on earth, in history, as a divine man, with an earthly family, companions, and enemies, complete with deeds and sayings, and an earthly depiction of his ordeals.

  5. Subsequent communities of worshipers believed (or at least taught) that this invented sacred story was real (and either not allegorical or only ‘additionally’ allegorical).

(Carrier, p. 53)

Lataster writes

[W]e can refer to the Biblical Jesus, or more specifically, the Gospel Jesus, as the general version of Jesus portrayed in the Gospels and held dear by believers, while the Celestial Jesus refers to the possible early Christian view of a Jesus that did not appear on Earth, as portrayed in the Pauline Epistles. (p. 13)

I fear the terms “mythicists” or “ahistoricists” may run into difficulties up ahead with such a foundation. Though Earl Doherty (whom Carrier follows), and before him, independently, Paul-Louis Couchoud, postulated a Pauline Jesus who was entirely “celestial”, Paul’s letters can be read differently. As Roger Parvus has shown, it is possible that Paul’s letters allow room for a Jesus who came to earth for a short time in order to be crucified.

Another “mythicist” option is also plausible: it is not inconceivable that Paul’s “crucified Christ” was preached in opposition to another Christ, a conquering Christ, as per the Book of Revelation, a Christ who was at no point crucified — according to Couchoud’s thesis (see “The Creation of Christ: An Outline of the Beginnings of Christianity” by P. L. Couchoud at vridar.info).

Carrier is following Earl Doherty’s thesis at this point, yet despite Doherty’s monumental contribution to raising public awareness of the question of Jesus’ historicity, I do not think that a “celestial Jesus” is a satisfactory notion of an equivalent to a “mythicist” Jesus. To express the point in its crudest terms, myths do not have to be restricted to “celestial realms”. And in the case of the “Jesus myth” idea we do have other options. Other “Jesus myth theories” have postulated a narrative arising in B.C.E. times, in particular around the time of Alexander Jannaus who is on record as having crucified 800 (mostly) Pharisees.

For the sake of compatability and consistency with Raphael Lataster’s discussion, I will try to keep in mind the need to refer to “mythicism” as the more inclusive “ahistoricism“.

The Gospel Jesus

The Gospel Jesus is evidently a figure crafted from a wide range of literary sources. The question for the study of Christian origins is Who/What gave rise to those gospel narratives? Somewhere along the line the Pauline notions gained dominance, although through the second century certain powers found opportunity to forge new concepts in his name. But before that time there were others with quite different notions of “Jesus” — one who had been slain in heaven, another who had been crucified by Herod (not Pilate), and one who had in the meantime descended into a place below the earth in order to release lost souls.

Any definition of a Jesus who is an alternative to a “historical figure” ideally should allow for all such apparent notions of “Jesus”, and more.

We will move on and next look at Raphael Lataster’s analysis of Bart Ehrman’s argument against the “ahistoricist” view and for the “historicist” Jesus.

 


Carrier, Richard. 2014. On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press.
Lataster, Raphael. 2019. Questioning the Historicity of Jesus: Why a Philosophical Analysis Elucidates the Historical Discourse. Leiden: Brill.

 

Review part 1: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster.

Brill, a publisher who value[s] academic freedom and rejects attempts to silence it. . . There are others of course but [Brill is among] these academic treasures that are on the side of truth and not beholden to ideologues of any stripe. — Jim West (ThD)

The publisher Brill has forwarded me access to Raphael Lataster’s book, Questioning the Historicity of Jesus: Why A Philosophical Analysis Elucidates the Historical Discourse, for review on this blog.

Disclaimer: Raphael Lataster makes a brief but favourable mention of me in the book. I can only plead my best efforts at honest neutrality by pointing to my critical responses to another scholar, Richard Carrier, who has also spoken positively about me.

The book’s dedication honours the late Emeritus Professor Philip R. Davies, no doubt because of his courageous 2012 article in The Bible and Interpretation, Did Jesus Exist?, in which he wrote

Philip Davies

I don’t think, however, that in another 20 years there will be a consensus that Jesus did not exist, or even possibly didn’t exist, but a recognition that his existence is not entirely certain would nudge Jesus scholarship towards academic respectability. (Bolding is all quotations is mine.)

A lengthy Foreword is written by Professor James Crossley who was a student of an anti-mythicist, Maurice Casey, but also a colleague of Philip Davies. Crossley acknowledges the contributions of outsiders from the field of biblical studies such as Raphael Lataster whose doctoral dissertation was in the Analytic Philosophy of Religion in the Religious Studies department of one of the world’s top fifty universities, the University of Sydney. Crossley notes that biblical studies departments have traditionally assumed the historicity of Jesus and that challenges to this assumption have come “from outside in recent years”, and notes specifically of Lataster’s contribution:

Thinking about the challenge provided by Lataster, my take is that more scepticism is indeed needed. (p. xii)

I’m so proud of this kid.
Jim West on James Crossley

Interestingly Crossley refers to his own particular contributions to the study of Christian origins and acknowledges that we cannot be certain that the themes he raised (the Gospel of Mark’s treatment of the sabbath, purity laws and eschatology) started with a historical Jesus:

Did these issues emerge with the historical figure of Jesus? It is possible, certainly. But they could have developed in (say) the 30s or 40s CE. Moreover, people can create stories in days, never mind a decade or decades. Stories can also retain historical information. But how do we actually prove this either way once we’ve established an early tradition or theme? (pp. xii f)

Note that. Lataster, likewise, argues the agnostic position.

Instead of relentlessly focusing on reconstructing an individual, and precise claims that cannot be proven, we might instead turn our focus to a history of ideas in Christian origins and provide a more solid grounding for scholarly claims.
James Crossley

Crossley is not denying the historicity of Jesus:

As is hopefully clear, this is not a mythicist position in the sense that it does not disprove Jesus’ existence (nor does it attempt to do so) but it is a position which acknowledges that we are severely restricted in what we can say about reconstructing the life of the historical Jesus. (p. xiii)

And then makes a point I find most reassuring myself, having attempted to promote it often enough on this blog:

But this does not have to be a bad thing. Instead of relentlessly focusing on reconstructing an individual, and precise claims that cannot be proven, we might instead turn our focus to a history of ideas in Christian origins and provide a more solid grounding for scholarly claims.

This brings us to Raphael Lataster’s own Introduction. I am dwelling on both the Foreword and Introduction in this first post on Lataster’s book because the question is certainly controversial enough and misconceptions abound and need to be confronted and cleared away in order for a serious reading to happen.

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